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In My Craft and Sullen Art

After Hemingway, I opened myself up to other writers: Sherwood Anderson, Bernard Malamud, Dylan Thomas, and Erskine Caldwell.  Alan Sillitoe’s writing spirited me to the grit of Nottingham, England.  I particularly liked John Cheever, not only for his witty, sparkling prose, but also his primary landscape: my home turf, the New York metropolitan area.  He made me almost want to live there.

After reading Hemingway, I, like thousands of writers before me, attempted to write like him: resisting the urge to go florid and wildly metaphorical, keeping my adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, striving to honor Papa’s dictum that prose should be “structure, not interior decoration.”  I submitted stories to various publications of greater and lesser renown, including The New Yorker, to which my parents subscribed.  Surely Mom and Dad knew their 18-year-old son’s submission to this, the country’s most prestigious forum for the short story, was doomed to failure, but they didn’t discourage me.  I guess that’s how much they understood.  I guess that’s how much they loved me. 

In any event, for two decades that early spark never blossomed into a flame of any size.  I majored in English as an undergraduate, focusing on American literature.  However, I struggled to understand my assignments, and today I can recall only a handful of the courses I took.  I took one creative writing class, in which I labored over a single short story that went nowhere.  For me, Hobart College was far more of a social experience than an academic one, often fueled by alcohol and marijuana, with occasional doses of hashish, mescaline, LSD, and amphetamines.  Oh, I read Hemingway―once: high on Dexedrine, I plowed through the entirety of The Sun Also Rises the night before my Introduction to American Literature final exam, finishing the novel, appropriately, as the sun rose, and nearly crashing during the exam.  Meanwhile, if I was majoring in English at Hobart, I was minoring―not for credit, of course―in rock music, the primary text for which was a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine.  I graduated from Hobart a thoroughly average student.  I earned my diploma without having studied Shakespeare in any depth and incapable of discussing with any confidence any American literary movement or any American author.  I chose to skip my formal graduation ceremony, which, I would learn a decade later during an ugly scene over a dinner table, my parents deeply regretted. An educational opportunity of a lifetime . . . squandered. 

Resettled in the West, I often checked out books from the Denver Public Library, yet finished few.  I purchased some books: collections of essays by Edward Abbey, novels by Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Hubert Selby Jr., Charles Bukowski, John Rechy―the rebels and oddballs.  The writing of film critic Pauline Kael I particularly enjoyed.  The only writing I undertook on a regular basis consisted of letters to my parents back East.  I was too nomadic and poor to have a telephone, and, besides, letters kept Mom and Dad at a distance I preferred.  I favored fantasizing about writing books over doing the actual writing.

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